Conversation brewed alongside coffee at the Communitech Hub Tuesday morning as founders gathered for a breakfast session tackling the ever-evolving landscape of intellectual property (IP) in today’s digital age.

Led by Jim Hinton, IP Lawyer and Strategist, and Alexis Conrad, Principal IP Advisor at Communitech, the discussion delved into the complexities of protecting valuable data in a world where information can be both a powerful asset and a potential security threat.

Hinton, who’s witnessed the local tech scene grow significantly over the past several years, emphasized the critical role of intangible assets in today's economy.

"Your most valuable assets are intangible assets and data really is the object that you protect with your intellectual property," he said. “Data can be anything that you have. It can be sensor data, financial data, customer data. These are strategic assets you have that your competitor doesn’t.”

In a discussion with Conrad about emerging trends, particularly in the realm of personal privacy and health care technology, Hinton highlighted that the key is the partnerships one has with the suppliers of that data.

"The new challenge is balancing informed consent and data privacy with the need for AI systems to access valuable data, like medical imaging, from suppliers,” he said. “This data is a strategic asset, and whoever can use it effectively to build better, faster AI systems for tasks like image segmentation will gain a competitive edge. Strong partnerships with data suppliers, along with data protected by strong IP practices and a talented team, form the golden triangle of innovation assets for today's organizations."

The conversation shifted to navigating potential pitfalls, with Hinton emphasizing the limitations of Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) in protecting trade secrets.

“Trade secrets are about keeping the locks on the door,” he said. “If you have a student coming in to work for a few months, that’s great, but don’t give them access to proprietary data.”

The human element also factored in, with Hinton highlighting the importance of well-defined employment agreements to safeguard confidential information. A real-world example – the case involving Uber, self-driving car secrets and a former Google engineer – served as a stark reminder of the consequences of data leaks.

Conrad and Hinton highlighted the ElevateIP program, a federally funded initiative, while acknowledging the ongoing challenges surrounding data residency and control.

“Canada faces a challenge: data residency doesn't guarantee control,” he said. “We need a national strategy to secure our data assets alongside fostering Canadian ownership of AI technology. AI companies, in particular, rely on access to critical data – ensuring control over both is crucial for success.”

ElevateIP is a nationwide project designed to help business accelerators and incubators like Communitech provide the tools Canadian startups need to understand, strategically manage and leverage their intellectual property.

Communitech is a proud partner with Invest Ottawa and North Forge in delivering the ElevateIP program for startups in Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Success stories weren't forgotten. Hinton pointed to thriving data-driven companies across various sectors, from manufacturing and fintech to cleantech.

“The key is getting access to the data,” he said. “That’s the starting point. Data is like water. It's hard to control if you don’t have something to capture it. Even if you capture it, it’s subject to leak.”

He emphasized the importance of constantly acquiring and retaining high-quality data.

“It’s about retention, especially when there are humans involved in data and managing privacy,” he said. “Right now it's a wild west situation – the legal people aren't quite recognizing the urgency.  But you can do anything with personal data as long as you’re not the slowest one running from the bear."

For companies just starting their data protection journey, Hinton cautioned against overly restrictive NDAs and suggested focusing on securing trade secrets through internal controls and strong cybersecurity measures.

Hinton also highlighted the need to dispel myths surrounding software patents and encouraged companies to explore all avenues for IP protection.

"Trade secret protection doesn't need to be expensive,” he said. “It's more about internal controls like limited access to confidential information. Patents, on the other hand, are expensive and require careful consideration because they're a significant investment.”